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British far-right and pro-Israel activists are fighting the Palestinian movement together

UK Palestine solidarity activists and students staging encampments have faced racial abuse and intimidation by groups waving Israeli flags and Union Jacks
Metropolitan Police officers arrest British far-right activist Tommy Robinson during a pro-Israel demonstration in central London on 26 November 2023 (Justin Tallis/AFP)
By Katherine Hearst in London

On 23 May, hundreds of far-right British nationalists and Israel supporters gathered outside the entrance of a small arthouse cinema in North London.

Brandishing Union Jacks, Israeli and Israeli military flags, they swarmed round a group of some 80 pro-Palestine activists who were staging a vigil on the far side of the road.

The vigil was part of a campaign to protest against the cinema’s hosting of a private screening of a documentary about the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel on 7 October, as part of the Israeli-government sponsored film festival, Seret.

The vigil organisers had braced themselves for a backlash. The week before, another demonstration outside the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead had drawn a much smaller crowd of counter-protesters. 

But the numbers outside the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley had ballooned to close to 1,000, anti-fascist investigation group Red Flare estimated.

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According to one of the vigil organisers, who spoke to Middle East Eye on the condition of anonymity, the counter-protest was one of the largest and most aggressive he had encountered.

'They were shouting really close to our faces, trying to grab signs and banners off us, hurling racist abuse, and spitting'

- pro-Palestine vigil organiser

“They were shouting really close to our faces, trying to grab signs and banners off us, hurling racist abuse, and spitting. People were throwing eggs too,” the organiser said, adding that a racist slur for south Asians was used. 

“They were trying to provoke a reaction,” the organiser told MEE.

In a video circulated online, a counter-protester is heard screaming at the activists to “go home to your country”.

A line of police attempted to separate the two groups but failed to stop counter-protestors skirting the police barrier to harass the vigil participants.

“They had a numerical advantage, so they felt like they could get away with more. The police were having a difficult enough time restraining, so they weren't getting arrested for racial aggravation,” the organiser said.

“We’ll have to expect more of this.”

Potentially politicised

According to Red Flare, the Phoenix Cinema counter-protest appeared to be coordinated by a number of Zionist groups that emerged in the aftermath of 7 October. Based on the groups' social media activity these include Enough is Enough and the 7/10 Human Chain Project

According to pro-Palestine activists, far-right live streamers Sam Westlake, who activists say is affiliated with anti-migrant group Patriots of Britain, and Brian Stovell, known as “Brexit Brian” and formerly affiliated with the British National Party, attended the counter-protest.

Westlake was also identified as participating in counter-protests targeting a University College London (UCL) student encampment on 27 May.

According to a staff member who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, the Phoenix Cinema's front of house staff and management, many of whom refused to work at the event, warned the board of trustees about the “potentially politicised” nature of the event ahead of the screening. 

Pro-Israel counter-protesters, including Amy Winehouse's father Mitch, in London on 27 April 2024 (Benjamin Cremel / AFP)

In the days leading up to it, the cinema was defaced with graffiti that read, "Say no to artwashing."

A petition on was also circulated "on behalf of the Jewish community" to stop the planned vigil.

The board responded by saying that unless it received a warning from the police, the screening would go ahead as planned.

“The Phoenix should not aim to censor or veto the content of screenings for any private hire, provided they are legal and, in this instance, unless we were advised by the police that it would be unsafe to proceed,” the trustees said in a statement.

 “We did not receive any such advice, so we proceeded with the screening,” they added.

'Destroy them like cockroaches'

A few days later, on 25 May, the pro-Palestine student encampment at UCL was confronted with a crowd of around 100 counter-protesters.

“At the end of the Phoenix Cinema protest, the counter-protesters made an announcement and said: this Saturday, we're heading to UCL,” Rob, a student who was stewarding the protest, told MEE.

According to Red Flare, the UCL counter-protest was organised by Enough is Enough and another Zionist group, Our Fight UK, which has a section on its website entitled "Ceasefire means surrender" in reference to Israel's war on Gaza. Key activists from far-right groups Turning Point UK and Patriots of Britain also attended the counter-protest.

'When I go to sleep in my tent ... I'm scared because they could come and set us on fire'

- Pro-Palestine student protester 

The encampment had previously been targeted by a number of sporadic, smaller counter-protests.

On 12 May, at around midnight, a group of counter-protesters draped in Israeli flags gathered outside the university’s gates blaring music in Hebrew from a set of speakers.

They then moved on to another encampment at SOAS university at around 2am.

“They figured out that we had an encampment and that we had an open space, because anyone can enter SOAS university ... you have access from the road,” a SOAS student from the encampment told MEE.

According to the student, one of the counter-protesters threatened to slap a UCL student wearing a hijab.

Another posted a video of himself on Instagram threatening to “destroy them [students] like cockroaches”.

According to the student, the encampment was also visited at night by a man threatening to unleash his dogs on the students. “Even with security or without security, our encampment is not safe,” the student said.

“When I go to sleep in my tent ... I'm scared because they could come and set us on fire,” she added.

Civic nationalism

According to Red Flare, the latest wave of counter-protests, beginning with the Phoenix in May, are attracting greater numbers and are more disruptive and confrontational in character.

They added that Enough is Enough appeared to be driving the surge, based on the group’s Instagram posts.

A Red Flare spokesperson told MEE that since April, the group has "snowballed ... they've managed to make more of a foothold”.

Red Flare said that the British far-right groups involved in the counter-protests, Turning Point UK and Patriots of Britain, are civic nationalist groups rather than ethnonationalist.

Unlike ethnonationalist groups such as Patriotic Alternative that are antisemitic, civic nationalists are more inclined to align themselves with Zionist groups due to their Islamophobic beliefs.

“They're more focused on the cultural aspects of racism than biological ones,” a Red Flare spokesperson told MEE.

According to Red Flare, the ties between these groups and the Zionist movement predate 7 October. 

Ollie Anisfeld, the former UK CEO of Turning Point, was also the founder of J-TV, which describes itself as "one of the biggest providers of Jewish content in the world".

No surrender

In November, English Defence League (EDL) founder Tommy Robinson and far-right network the Democratic Football Lads Alliance were among at least four groups to have issued calls for a 2,000-strong counter-protest targeting a pro-Palestine solidarity march on Armistice Day that month.

iNews reported that in one anti-Islamic WhatsApp group, containing over 1,000 members, messages called for supporters to “fight back” against pro-Palestinian protesters. One message read “No surrender to these c***s, this is our house.”

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“Tommy Robinson and the EDL are very openly Zionist ... They have this detestation of the Palestinian cause that is rooted [in the idea of] the white settler and the brown native that needs to be disciplined,” Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, a historian of nationalism and race at Kings College in London, told MEE.

For Zia-Ebrahimi, the far right’s increasingly emphatic support for Zionism stems from a tactical bid to boost popularity, but also springs from a shared ideology.

“The fact that the Zionists give a hard time to brown people, and specifically Muslim Arabs, and is popular with the far right is not an accident of history. It's not contingent. It's really structural,” he told MEE.

In Europe, far-right groups, many of them with antisemitic origins, such as the Sweden Democrats, Flemis Velaams Belang in Belgium, France's Rassemblement National, the Austrian Freedom Party and Fidezs in Hungary, have come to embrace Zionism as a key pillar of their projects.

“Practically without any exception, far-right parties on the European continent are Zionist, including those that have antisemitic origins and still have antisemites among their members,” Zia-Ebrahimi said.

“All these parties are fascinated by this ethnonationalist state that is Israel, because that's how it's perceived. It's a white ethnonationalist settler-colonial state,” he added.

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